Maximillian Potter is the senior media advisor for the governor of Colorado. He is also an award-winning journalist, and the former executive editor of 5280: Denver's Magazine. His first book, Shadows in the Vineyard, detailing the events surrounding an attempt to poison one of the world's greatest wineries, is out this month.
Loranne caught up with Maximillian this month to discuss the crime, the writing process, and, of course, wine.
For those who have yet to read Shadows in the Vineyard, could you give us the nutshell version of the book?
The narrative engine of the book is the story of an unprecedented crime that was committed against the most highly regarded and storied winery in the world, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Located in the heart of France's Burgundy region, the DRC (in wine-speak) produces seven of the world's finest and—go figure—most expensive wines, including La Tâche, Richebourg, and arguably the most coveted wine on the planet, Romanée-Conti, which, in the unlikely event you could find it available for purchase, is likely selling for north of $10,000. The French government regards the DRC as something of a national landmark. Think of the winery as something akin to America's Liberty Bell, only it produces wine.
In January 2010, the co-owner of the Domaine, Monsieur Aubert de Villaine, received a note informing him that a small piece of his winery's most prestigious vineyard, Romanée-Conti, had been poisoned and most of the rest of the vines in that parcel would be killed unless De Villaine paid a one million euro ransom. A substantial part of the book deals with the criminal investigation, the investigators, the sting operation that caught the bad guys, and the unlikely and tragic end of the investigation. But the crime is only a piece of the book.
For the crime to be fully appreciated, the reader must understand Burgundy. So the criminal investigation becomes a way to explore the characters, culture and history of region. To go with a viticulture metaphor, I think of the crime as the main vine trunk and the subplots as the shoots of the vine. We come to know the incredible history of wine in Burgundy, which begins with bands of holy men on the run; then the Prince de Conti—the James Bond of pre-revolutionary France; and of course, the De Villaine family, which co-owns the Domaine, and the tensions that nearly pulled apart their winery and the disciplined tenderness that held it together.
Shadows is about about a crime, wine, family, obsession and love.
You first brought this story of wine, intrigue, and sabotage to the public in a Vanity Fair piece in 2011. What drew you to this particular story, so much that you decided to expand it into a book? What was the most challenging part of bringing the tale to life in a longer format?
I sensed there was a book to be written not long after I first arrived in Burgundy to report the Vanity Fair story. I'd been doing magazine stories for the better part of 20 years and this was one of the three times in all of that time when I'd felt that there was so much rich material it ached for a book. In this case, I first started thinking of a book during my very first meeting with Monsieur Aubert de Villaine. Before I'd met Aubert, in my mind's eye, I pictured him as a soft-palmed, ascot-wearing French aristocrat who charged way too much for a bottle of wine and probably had whatever happened to his vines coming. Within hours of talking with him, I began to realize how ignorant my image of him had been.
While many vinegrowers, or vignerons, refer to their vines as their enfants, for Aubert, these vines were indeed his children. What's more, they are his legacy, handed down through generations, and these vines are entangled with French history. The Domaine, as Monsieur de Villaine puts it, is something much bigger than any one person or vintage.
Even in the face of the attack on this sacred trust, his demeanor remained unwaveringly kind and gentle. When I learned of what he had decided to do, or rather not do, to the bad guys when they were apprehended, well, I was stunned by his mercy and forgiveness. Aubert once told me, “The world could use more hugs.” The world could use more people like Monsieur de Villaine. So meeting him was a moment.
Other factors that got me thinking a book that needed to be written were the remarkable history of the Burgundy region, the jealousies and intrigue interwoven throughout the the region and the history of the Domaine itself. When I discovered that the Prince de Conti—after whom the winery and its celebrated vineyard is named—may very well have almost trigged the French Revolution decades before it occurred, that struck me as irresistible.
The hardest thing about expanding what started as a magazine piece into the book format was having to leave so many stories and so many great characters out of the book. ...Sigh.
The neat thing about Shadows—especially for wine novices like myself—is that you bring a large dose of historical context into the tale, showing us how the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti came to be, and developed into the revered vineyard it is. Was it difficult to strike a balance between providing that context and maintaining focus on the ongoing story?
Well, thanks and I'm glad you liked it. While I found myself with many options when it came to great characters and magnificent historical subplots, yes, it was difficult to find what I hope is a compelling structure that strikes the right balance of historical context and true crime. I wanted to satiate oenophiles, but also captivate wine novices.
For me, when it comes to writing, structure is close to everything—if that's wrong, it's all wrong. Perhaps giving myself too much credit, I consider myself a pretty average human, especially when it comes to curiosity and attention span; in determining the structure, I considered what it was about Burgundy that I had found so compelling and I went with that as my guiding strategy. As I began writing the book, I found myself saying to friends that the crime was what first drew me to Burgundy, but the poetry of the place was what kept me coming back. The thing was, once I was into reporting the crime, in Burgundy talking with Aubert and so many other Burgundians, I came to learn that, My gosh, the crime really is not the most interesting thing about this region and the people who cherish and cultivate it; there's so much more. And so, I tried to structure the book accordingly.
Before all of this, I didn't care much about wine, didn't care much about France. I wouldn't have been much interested in a book about either. (Happens a lot when you write for general interest magazines, by the way.) I certainly wasn't one to pick up a book about wine. I wrote the book for people like me. Ultimately, I guess, I wrote the book primarily thinking of people who haven't yet discovered wine but who should. I hope Shadows will be something that readers remember, the people and stories, and that those memories will enhance the flavor and enjoyment of their next glass of burgundy, or maybe inspire them to try their first burgundy.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned as you researched for Shadows in the Vineyard?
Gosh, so much. In terms of reported material, the story of the Prince de Conti was the most stunning to me. Such a remarkable character. He personifies that old nonfiction writers truism that fact really can be stranger (and so much more awesome) than fiction.
On a more existential level, I was struck by the fact that everyone I met in Burgundy and who loved Burgundy, who worked in wine and believed in the magic of the terroir of the place—everyone of them was broken. In some way, each of these Burgundy believers was—is—broken, or maybe a better way of saying it has died a little at some point because of tragedy. (Who among us isn't like that, I guess.) Yet, in Burgundy, they find the promise of starting over, of the rebirth, of the hope, that comes in every new vintage. Burgundians are aware of this. That's pretty awesome. At least, I think so.
Although it was ultimately unsuccessful, do you think this plot to poison the vines of one of the most celebrated vineyards in all of Burgundy (not to mention France) has or will change the wine-making business significantly?
I don't think it will change the wine business in any visible way. Certainly not in Burgundy. As one of the wine trade association representatives told me, no one is going to start putting fences around vineyards or installing surveillance cameras and security guards; that just wouldn't be Burgundian. And that determination not to change in such ways, to not let fear undermine the culture, I think, is a testament to the resiliency of winemakers not only in France but around the world. It's also indicative of the French vignerons' faith in their fellow man.
That said, I think the crime absolutely and profoundly affected the perspective of the Burgundian vigneron community. As I write in the book, the marriage of the vine to the earth is at the core of the essence of Burgundians. For centuries, they have trusted their fellow man to respect that, to leave that incredibly vulnerable union alone. No one ever considered that anyone would ever contemplate let alone execute such an act. And so, I think that it very much shook the faith of the Burgundian vignerons.
I found your admission toward the very end of the book of not being a "wine guy" a surprise—you had me fooled all along! Having spent so much time immersed in the world of wine and viticulture, are you a convert now? What are your favorite wines?
Hey, thank you. Truth is I now know enough about Burgundy to have a good idea of just how much I don't know. Whatever I learned is because I ended up living in the heart of Burgundy off and on for about a year and half, and because I had the extreme good fortune to learn from the very best and most passionate vignerons in the world, and because I simply had the time to wander and discover. I don't think anyone can begin to comprehend that place, that culture, without meandering a bit. Again, that was also part of what informed the narrative structure. And while the region is difficult to know, no one should be intimidated. That's why I decided to share a bit of my own background toward the end of the book. While I didn't want “me” to get in the way of the story, I did think a sliver of self was relevant to encourage wine neophytes to not be intimidated by the wine world, by Burgundy.
When it comes to wines, I'd say I'm at once extraordinarily picky but also super easy to please. Look, there's simply no way around it: I was spoiled in Burgundy. The first Burgundy I drank was a 2008 La Tâche at the Domaine. I had a 1997 Romanée-Saint-Vivant. I drank every wine from their 2009 and 2010 vintage. I had the remarkable good fortune to be invited to parties and tastings in Burgundy where, even now, as I look over the list of wines I drank and the barely legible tasting notes I took, man, what a trip. Since you ask, my top two wines of all that I drank were the 2008 La Tâche and the La Romanée of that same vintage by Domaine Liger-Belair.
Here's where I'm easy: Really, I pretty much like burgundies. White or Red. In what some wine experts would say is either a craziness or savvy strategy, I tend to go by the provenance, by the village. If I see Chambolle-Musigny or Pommard, or Vosne-Romanée on a bottle, I'm pretty confident I'll love it. Question is, can I afford it? Having worked on this book and downed a lot of Domaine A&P Bouzeron Aligoté, well, I like that quite a bit and it's reasonably priced at about $32 per bottle. The fact that it comes from Aubert de Villaine's own winery means he could charge probably at least twice that amount, but he believes it is important to keep the wine affordable as possible.
When and where do you do most of your writing?
I'm married with with two sons (12 and 13), which means it's pretty impossible to find quiet in the house. I need absolute quiet to write. I can't think without quiet, and thinking is writing. I have a small studio-shed in the yard behind my house in downtown Denver. I work in the shed, “the pain cave.” It's about 8' x 10'. My writing schedule changed pretty dramatically after I signed on with Governor John Hickenlooper as his media adviser and speechwriter. Before that, well, let's start with a Day One of a project: I'd start writing around 10 a.m. Basically not make any progress worth talking about until around 2 p.m. Not get anything I like until 9 p.m. And when I really feel like I got somewhere would be around 11 p.m. That's when I am so fucking exhausted that the parts of my brain that have me second-guessing and triple-guessing every one of thoughts shut off; it's then, when I'm just writing raw that I think I really get rolling. I'd go until 2 or 3 a.m. Then, Day Two would start by me reading aloud everything written the day and night before and polishing. I revise as I go. Over and over and over. Particularly the first sentences and paragraphs and first chapter. Those are the foundation of everything. I can't move on until I'm happy with that. After I joined Governor Hickenlooper's team, well, that schedule, for as much as it is a schedule, went to hell. Let's just say that writing a State of the State speech alone doesn't leave much time for a life.
What have you read and enjoyed recently?
I just started and am loving, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard. Not a new book, but new to me. I bought it to take with me on a family vacation to Costa Rica, where we rented a place in the jungle. Considering the book is set in the Amazonian jungle, our vacation was an ideal setting to read it. Millard's reporting and writing is so rich and wonderful and riveting.
What's your home library like? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?
Well, at the moment, I've got quite a few wine books on the shelves. Generally, my shelves are 80 percent nonfiction. The fiction I have includes Kent Haruf. Everyone of his books. Guy's a genius. John Irving. All of his stuff, including Trying to Save Piggy Sneed which features Irving writing on writing. I'm a big fan of both Andre Dubus and his son, Andre Dubus III. Broken Vessels the old man's collection of short stories is gorgeous. Dirty Love by the kid is brilliant.
Mostly, I read nonfiction. Because lately I've been often writing myself, I've been turning to books that I've come to love and over the years have found inspiring. When I get stuck, I often find myself reaching for Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action. There's so much to love about that book. But as a writer, that book reminds me to have patience in determining what I reveal to the reader and when. Harr's writing is so disciplined.
Another book I reach for time and time again is Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. That may very well be my all-time favorite nonfiction book. It certainly was a touchstone for me for Shadows because, it seemed to me, that there were similar narrative challenges: In the simplest terms, his tragic hero, Chris McCandless, walks off into the woods, makes a stupid mistake and dies because of it. Really, that's the nucleus of the narrative. But, my god, what a triumph Into the Wild is. It is so much more. Aside from writing beautifully, Krakauer harnesses Chris's spirit and Chris's journey, and that is what the story is really about. I mean, it's so simple, only it's absolutely not simple. In Shadows, if you take a Monday Morning Quarterback view of the crime: It's similarly simple. In writing my book, I considered what Krakauer did with the McCandless story. With Into the Wild it's not about how Chris's life ends, but about the journey. As Krakauer traces Chris's steps, it is, literally and metaphorically, about wandering and, not to be too corny about it, spirituality. I took inspiration from that.
I know the Colorado governor's office must keep you quite busy, but are you working on any other new projects? What's next for you?
I've got all kinds of ideas in my head. Too many ideas. Right now, less and less time for them. I know this: Burgundy hasn't let go of me. And I don't want it to.
—interview by Loranne Nasir